By Joann Ellison Rodgers

First off, Sex is not what you think. Second, read it anyway.

Rodgers romps not on satin sheets but in the biological swamp of chromosomes, fruit flies and voles. More familiar creatures also come up: "Symmetry," she writes, "is why Elizabeth Taylor, Denzel Washington and Nefertiti are universally recognized as full of sex appeal."

From her analysis of why women like to be courted energetically to the history of aphrodisiacs (Ovid relied on liquamen, made from rotting fish guts; Montezuma guzzled 50 cups of chocolate a day before visiting his 600-women harem), Rodgers is the biology teacher you wish you'd had. (Times Books, $32.50)

Bottom Line: Everything you always wanted to know about sex

By Parnell Hall

Tipsy, tart-tongued Cora Felton is a crossword-puzzle writer whose hapless young niece Sherry Carter does most of the work so Cora can concentrate on developing her real talents: marrying, boozing and solving the occasional murder.

This goofy pair live in a mythical town in Connecticut, where Cora and a know-it-all editor are cohosting a crossword-puzzle tournament. What nobody can figure out, though, is why three people turn up dead.

Cruciverbalists will get a bang out of working out the three crossword puzzles critical to solving the mystery, but others will find the plotting plodding. At least Cora and the befuddled local police chief brighten things up with their rapid-fire dialogue. (Bantam, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Has some blank spots

Photographs and Memories
Compiled by Jean-Jacques Naudet

Like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, who would have turned 100 on Dec. 27, became more famous for her mystique than her movie oeuvre. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to name any of her films.

This luxurious sled-size volume—scrapbook is too shabby a word—offers sharp, droll captions by Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva, but it's hardly a conventional biography. We learn nothing about Dietrich's husband, Rudolf Sieber, except that he brought his mistress to dinners with his wife. (One longs to be a fly in the soup at those meals.) Dietrich's own extramarital affairs are unintentionally funny: Reproduced here are heartbroken love letters from Maurice Chevalier, Yul Brynner, screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta (whose grief-stricken notes Dietrich read aloud to her husband) and others. But the book's text also tells of the hausfrau who scrubbed floors on her knees. Surprising details emerge: Hitler threatened her family when she refused to return to Germany in the late 1930s, and her first name is an amalgam of Maria and Magdalene, perfect for an angelic temptress. This is a high-toned picture book of silvery glamor shots and elaborate costumes (bugle beads, sable and ostrich feathers all get their due). It's the definitive fan's bible. (Knopf, $40)

Bottom Line: Gilds the lily Marlene

By Brad Thor

Those jokes about cuckoo clocks and Toblerone have finally taken their toll: The Swiss turn diabolical in this globe-spanning thriller.

Swiss mercenaries—the lions of the title—are hired by U.S. businessmen enraged by the President's bill to cut fossil-fuel consumption. The plan: Kidnap the President and pretend Palestinian extremists are responsible. The wrinkle: Secret Service agent Scot Harvath—former Navy SEAL, former freestyle skiing sensation, all-around bad dude—who insists on single-handedly tracking down the Commander in Chief and bringing violent death to his unsavory captors. Enter sultry Swiss agent Claudia Mueller, whose own investigation brings her and Harvath together, in love and covert war.

In his first novel, Thor, the host of the PBS series Traveling Lite, packs in plenty of picturesque settings. The dialogue sometimes clunks, but Thor keeps his blue-eyed hero human. Add to that a rare romance that builds at a believable pace and you've got a hot read for a winter night. (Pocket, $25)

Bottom Line: Lions roars

By Dean Koontz

Page-turner of the week

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Koontz's latest characters seem a lot further than one door from heaven. Twentysomething Michelina (Micky) Bellsong is battling a drinking problem and has just spent 16 months in prison, thanks to a slimy ex-boyfriend who left her holding the bag for his criminal exploits. Her Aunt Geneva is a good-hearted soul with a shaky grip on reality: She was shot in the head during a grocery store robbery 18 years earlier, leaving her unable to distinguish between her own memories and the story lines of her favorite films.

Still, their problems pale in comparison to those of the new neighbor in their Southern California trailer park: Leilani Klonk, a precocious 9-year-old with a deformed hand and leg who has a drug addict for a mother and believes her stepfather is planning to murder her before her 10th birthday.

Complicated? Yes. But never one to skimp on plot, Koontz is just getting started. He also manages to weave in bits about a mysterious 10-year-old boy fleeing the men who murdered his mother; extraterrestrial visitors; and utilitarian bioethics, a philosophy advocating euthanasia of the sick and disabled. Mixing suspense, science fiction, humor and plenty of heart, One Door Away from. Heaven is a thriller that inspires both chills and serious thought. (Bantam, $26.95)

Bottom Line: Spooky and satisfying

By Jenny Colgan

It's Friends on the Thames when Holly, a London florist, moves in with old college chums Josh and Kate. The other roommate, Addison, never leaves his room, preferring life online. Holly swoons over Addison's dark good looks, scheming for some face time. But Holly and her pals have to learn what Bridget Jones did: Don't try so hard and maybe love will find a way to find you.

Colgan's gentle touch with her love-crossed characters makes this comic novel fresh and entertaining. Their wisecracking—when Holly realizes she doesn't really like a sci-fi nerd she'd been seeing, she says, "Oh, wow! I don't need to pretend to know about Star Wars anymore!"—never quite conceals their endearing vulnerability. (Warner, $23.95)

Bottom Line: An amusing Britcom

By Brad Meltzer

Oliver and Charlie Caruso's working-class noses are pressed against the glass dividing the classes at a Manhattan bank that employs them as low-level drones. By the time we meet their sickly mother, we're primed for these novice thieves to make their move, and when they get a chance to nab millions of dollars being transferred from a dormant account, they do not disappoint.

Meltzer (The First Counsel) does, though. His account is plot-rich but character-poor. Step-by-step instructions for building offshore dummy corporations or wiretapping government vehicles, given mainly through clumsy exposition, are no substitute for storytelling zing. (Warner, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Not earning interest

  • Contributors:
  • Andrea Higbie,
  • Cathy Burke,
  • Mark O'Donnell,
  • Scott Nybakken,
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • Allen Salkin.